Agency of the User in Social Media and Video Games

The aim of this paper is to understand how users of social media and players of video game may exercise their agency with relation to Shakespeare’s presence in the digital space. The paper will focus on the essays by Stephen O’ Neill, Rebecca Bushnell, Janet H. Murray, and Gina Bloom to engage with the issue.

Stephen O’Neill has rightly pointed out in his essay, “Shakespeare and Social Media,” that the connotations of ‘Shakespeare’ extend beyond those of a playwright and a collection of plays. ‘Shakespeare’ has become a cultural phenomenon which pervades high culture, mass culture, and popular culture (275). Multiple facets of this omnipresent cultural phenomenon that is ‘Shakespeare’ are present in social media. O’Neill writes that social media disperses ‘Shakespeare’ across various digital platforms, such as, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Youtube, and so on (274). Each of these platforms create various functionalities for ‘Shakespeare’ and allows the user to approach it in different ways. While YouTube gives the user the opportunity to share amateur performances of Shakespeare, Facebook could be used to form scholarly discussion forums on Shakespeare (281). Social media accords greater agency to the users because it turns them from passive spectators to active contributors. Instead of being a passive reader of Shakespeare’s works or passive spectator of his plays, social media endows the users with the apparatuses which give way to a more active engagement with ‘Shakespeare.’ The user can exercise his/her agency by generating content in social media and then by sharing it with other users. The respondents also exercise their respective agency by articulating their reaction to the generated content by ‘liking’ it and sharing it with yet other users of social media. The users thus get interconnected in a network of generating and reacting to content by virtue of exercising their agency (275).

However, social media is unable to offer unregulated agency to the users. Each social media platform comes with its own “medium-specific attributes” which “shape the kinds of communication, connection, and participation that occur” (274). O’Neill gives the example of exchanging scholarship on Shakespeare through Twitter. He writes that Twitter is an excellent platform to publicize one’s ideas and theories and receive feedback from other scholars. But because of the ephemerality of the Tweets, important arguments often run the risk of being lost before getting noticed by other users. The user does not have any control over the technical operations of Twitter. S/he cannot make a Tweet remain longer than the platform allows it to (281). Also, if the user is choosing Twitter to share his/her argument, then s/he would have to shape it in the way ordained by the platform of Twitter. Unlike a blogpost, a Tweet cannot be longer than 140 characters. So scholarship has to be compressed within that limit and packaged accordingly. Therefore, although Twitter allows the users to generate and circulate their Shakespearean scholarship, it diminishes their agency by imposing a specific form on how the scholarship is presented to the public. Moreover, the building of scholarly communities on social media may create a certain exclusivity at times, which would reduce the agency of those who wish to enter the community but cannot or are not permitted to. For example, membership in a Facebook closed group is regulated by administrators. Therefore, even if a person is intrigued by the discussion of the group, his/her entry to the group and freedom to post to the group will be determined by the administrator. In this case, the user’s agency will be largely regulated by the discretion of the administrator. The feature of making a group ‘secret’ on Facebook also allows for interesting configurations of agency. The users of such a group enjoy the agency of making their group entirely invisible to other users of Facebook and making it accessible only to the members of that group.

Although the users enjoy the agency of generating content and responding to it on social media platforms, the fact that the content is circulated on social media has a special impact on it. If a discussion on Shakespeare is held on Facebook by renowned academics (and assuming it is also made public) and if the same discussion is held by the same scholars on an institutional/academic website, such as the MIT Shakespeare, would both of them have the same scholarly value to their respondents, even if the content is exactly the same? In my opinion, the institutional website would ascribe to the discussion more scholarly capital and authenticity. It is rather tricky to cite Twitter or Facebook in one’s scholarly essay; but it is way more acceptable to cite MIT Shakespeare. It is thus an ironical situation. It is social media which allows the user the agency to create and share content related to Shakespeare; yet the fact that it is created and circulated on social media casts doubt on the scholarly provenance of the content.

In “Hamlet” on the Holodeck Janet H. Murray discusses how the concept of agency functions in case of video-games. Most video-games have a narrative structure of going a quest or solving a puzzle. Murray opines that in a narrative structure we expect to enjoy limited agency (126). In the teleological narrative structure the narrative progresses towards a predetermined end and there is little the interlocutor can do to change its course. Yet narrative-driven video-games give the gamers the experience of or the semblance of enjoying agency. The game asks the user to make specific decisions and take specific actions which determine the future course of the game. The gamer is thus given the impression that his/her choices and actions decide the outcome of the game. Rebecca Bushnell, in “Tragic Time in Drama, Film, and Videogames,” identifies this as the authorship of the gamer, “the player is constantly offered options of speech and action, and through these a form of authorship: the power to create both plot and character” (80). Murray’s argues to the contrary. The gamer is able to make a choice or execute an action when the game prompts him/her to do so. The gamer is unable to do anything unless the game creates an opportunity for him/her. And when the gamer decides to take an action, the outcome is also pre-scripted by the game. As part of the rules of the game, the gamer remains in the state of imperfect knowledge where s/he does not know the outcome of an action, although it has already been decided in the design of the game. Here Bushnell’s query becomes pertinent: “is the player indeed free in the game, or does the game ultimately play her?” (76). The game creates an illusion of agency for the gamer. But what the gamer is actually doing is participating in the game and playing the game by the rules. Murray comments that participation is not the same as agency (128). The gamer’s agency is operational as far as whether or not s/he chooses to abide by the rules of the game. That the gamer’s agency is limited is made evident by such occasions in games where despite the best efforts of the gamer, certain unfavourable events occur. Bushnell gives the example of Heavy Rain where no matter how earnestly the gamer tries, s/he will not be able to prevent the death of a particular character (78). The death of this character is required for the progression of the game narrative and it cannot be prevented by the actions of the gamer. The gamer’s faculty to exert his/her agency is thus undermined by the teleological structure of the game narrative.

Another occasion in video-games, Murray points out, where gamers enjoy a certain amount of agency is when they decide to replay the same game as the opponent of the character they had impersonated when they had previously played the game (147). Bushnell cites a similar situation. She writes when an avatar dies in a game, the gamer can exercise his/her agency by replaying the same sequence and not making the same mistakes the next time over. This gives the gamer an impression of going back in time or undoing time (70). When the gamer plays the game from two opposing sides, the game assigns him/her different goals to achieve. The gamer not only gets the opportunity to play as the opponent but also play the game following a different trajectory toward reaching a different goal. Thus in choosing a different side or in choosing to replay the same sequence, the gamer exercises his/her agency to play the same game differently or redress the mistakes s/he had made the first time over. But again, how different this experience is going to be is already predetermined by the pre-set narrative design of the game. The consequence for each possible action of the gamer has already been interwoven in the design of the game. When the gamer is responding to certain situations in a game, taking certain actions, and confronting its consequences, s/he is authoring a certain trajectory in the game. Murray terms this ‘derivative authorship’ in which the gamer is the author of that particular performance of the game-sequence (153). It is to be distinguished from ‘originating authorship’. Murray states that originating authorship in electronic media is necessarily procedural, “it means writing the rules for the interactor’s involvement, that is, the conditions under which things will happen in response to the participant’s action” (153). Originating authorship is located in those who design the narrative of the game. When the gamer takes an action and faces the consequence, s/he is not authoring that particular game-sequence. Both the action and its consequence have been predetermined/authored by the designer of the game. What the gamer is essentially doing is exerting his/her agency to choose to take that particular action and face its corresponding consequence.
Bushnell further points out how the environment of the game exercises control over the gamer’s agency and execution of choices. The video-game environment often creates a sense of immediacy and anxiety and instigates the gamer to act on impulse rather than on rational contemplation. In such situations the gamers are likely to take irrational actions the consequences of which might turn out to be detrimental for his/her fate in the game. Bushnell gives the example of such an instantaneous reaction when in A Wolf Among Us, she harms the opponent beast. She writes that the decision to harm the beast was superfluous and hasty and was generated by rage, rather than logical discernment. As the game progresses she discovers that her action has augmented the ferocity of the beast and has made the game more difficult for her. The environment of the game, thus, manipulates the execution of the gamer’s agency and uses against him/her the power to exercise agency.

Gamers come close to sharing the authorship of the game-designers, writes Bushnell, when they approach the cheat codes hidden in the program of the game. When gamers access the deeper level of the program and manipulate it, they reach the constituent elements of the game. The craftsmanship of the game is partially revealed to the gamers through the cheat codes. When the gamer plays the game by the cheat code rather than the rules of the game, s/he tries to subvert the teleological principle of the game and author a new narrative trajectory for it. In this occasion, thus, the gamer’s agency comes close to authorship. But playing by the cheat code creates only an illusion of power and authorship rather than ascribing actual authorship to the gamers. The cheat codes are not really written by the gamers, but by the game designers. The consequence of playing by the cheat codes is also often predetermined by the designers. Playing by the cheat codes may appear as subverting the teleological structure of the game narrative, but it only makes the gamer follow an alternative teleology. What the gamer exercises is not authorship, but his/her agency to play by the cheat codes. The rest is again decided by the preordained design of the game (79).

Bushnell states that in the video-game the gamer is at once the author of his/her own performance and its spectator (81). The gamer makes his/her avatar perform in the game and watches the performance on screen. The gamer does not remain a passive spectator, but is an active participant who holds high stakes in the performance. In “Games,” Gina Bloom points out that staged games in early modern drama gave the audience lessons in participatory spectatorship (202). In case of video-games ‘participatory spectatorship’ of the audience gives way to a more active execution of power and agency, but remains restrained by the overarching telos of the game. When we take into account games designed after Shakespeare’s plays, the agency of the gamer is made doubly subservient; primarily to the narrative design of the actual Shakespearean play and secondly to the adaption of the play to the gaming platform where the Shakespearean narrative is altered by the game developers.

Works Cited

Bloom, Gina. “Games.” Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Early Modern Theatricality. Edited by Henry S. Turner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 189-211.

Bushnell, Rebecca. “Tragic Time and Choice in Video Games.” Tragic Time in Drama, Film, and Video Games: The Future in the Instant. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 65-86.

Murray, Janet H. “Agency.” “Hamlet” on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: MIT Press, 1997. 126-153.

O’Neill, Stephen. “Shakespeare and Social Media.” Literature Compass 12/6 (2015): 274–285.

Shakespeare for Everyone by Anne Marie

A question we have discussed at length is that of audience: whom is it comprised of, and how should they be reached? As we have seen in examining various editions of Shakespeare’s plays, most editions are geared towards a particular audience, such as performers, scholars, or students. But is it possible to reach all of Shakespeare’s potential audiences at the same time? Taking the Folger Shakespeare Library as a case study, it would seem so. The Folger Library offers resources and opportunities for a wide variety of people, especially scholars, students, and amateur Shakespeare enthusiasts. Since the Folger offers such a variety of resources, one questions is, how effectively does the Library reach these audiences? I would argue that it doesn’t matter. The Library is a kind of Shakespeare Mecca, offering something for everyone but not trying to provide everything for everyone. The Folger Library is evidence that Shakespeare can be for everyone and that his work can foster community.

Home to the world’s largest collection of First Folios as well as an enormous number of rare materials from Early Modern England, the Folger Shakespeare Library has something for everyone, and appreciation of the bard goes beyond the surface of simply reading. There are a number of theatrical productions, especially geared towards encouraging student interest in Shakespeare’s plays by inviting them to be active performers. Various teaching resources, especially the blog posts from various teachers, also emphasize the importance of performing Shakespeare’s work in learning to appreciate it. The insistence on activity is reminiscent of Alan Galey’s article in which he encourages us not to get hung up on final products but rather to focus on “agents who carry out the work.” He is discussing digital scholarly editing, but the idea applies to learning about and appreciating Shakespeare as well. An end product can be useful, but appreciating the process, both the process of creating digital scholarly editions and the process of producing a play, can ultimately lead to more growth and development as well as a deeper understanding of Shakespeare.

Interest in Shakespeare’s work is not only fostered by activity, but also by a sense of community. Dr. Mike Witmore emphasizes that scholars are not the only ones who can be invested in Shakespeare’s work; non-academics also have an opportunity to show their appreciation. In “Shakespeare in the Digital Age,” Witmore explains that when fundraising, he reaches out to non-academic enthusiasts. While it is tempting to be cynical about this arrangement, it is important to remember that there are different ways to be invested in literature and the creation of knowledge. The different funding sources are also reminders that the Library does not only exist for academic work. Scholars can advance our knowledge of Shakespeare’s work and his world, but amateur enthusiasts are crucial in ensuring that this work continues.

The community fostered by the Folger Library is not limited to those in the vicinity of the Library, as there are many digital resources available for free online that can be accessed from anywhere. Eric Johnson, Director of Digital Access at the Folger Library, discusses the library’s development of digital projects. He explains that the Digital Media and Publications division is “deploying tools to improve access to collections, form scholarly online communities, and enhance interactions with a vast array of texts.” An example of one of the division’s projects is the collection of Folger Digital Texts, which are available for free download through the library’s website. These texts are available in multiple formats, allowing for their use in a variety of ways. Given the changes in the publishing world, which Galey also discusses, Johnson emphasizes the importance of taking advantage of new opportunities for electronic distribution and collaboration. Digital publications can reach an even wider audience than print publications, and they allow for communication among scholars who might not normally be in contact.

The increasing number of the Folger’s digital resources fits with the trend of increasing numbers of other digital formats and different ways of presenting Shakespeare’s work, from digital scholarly editions of the plays to Shakespeare apps to Gina Bloom’s Play the Knave. But why Shakespeare’s work? Speaking about digital developments, Eric Johnson states that Shakespeare’s works “inevitably move into new media.” The plays’ continuing popularity and familiarity make them easy to adapt to new media. They have endured thus far, so why should they not continue? However, our discussions of these new media and their reviews remind us that there are no perfect Shakespeare resources—there’s always some shortcoming or lack of crucial information, such as the meaning of different kinds of brackets in a digital Shakespeare edition—so the work of updating and adapting his work must continue.

We can see the importance of adapting Shakespeare not just in new performances of his plays, but also in how his original texts are presented. These updates and adaptations are essential for ensuring that Shakespeare’s work is available for everyone, not just in its appeal, but also in its accessibility. Adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays (in movies, for example) are evidence of the stories’ appeal. Making Shakespeare’s works available through digital media ensures that the most recent scholarship is also available. This is evident not only in looking at online journals dedicated to Shakespeare, such as the Folger’s Shakespeare Quarterly, but also in the adaptation of Shakespeare’s work for apps. In Raphael Lyne’s review of The Tempest for iPad, he highlights the advantage of the app format over print editions of Shakespeare’s plays. The possibility of constantly updating apps as soon as new scholarship or new performances appear make them potentially superior to print editions that cannot be updated as frequently and are more expensive to update. The disadvantage of apps or other online resources is that constantly updating them with new scholarship is not feasible, which is why no app like that really exists. It is easier, then, to provide new, innovative, and interesting resources for students and Shakespeare enthusiasts than it is for scholars.

The Folger Library and its huge variety of resources is part of a broader democratization of Shakespeare’s work. The words of Shakespeare can be used and appreciated not just by scholars discovering new meaning and information about Shakespeare’s life, but also rhetorically and artistically. Poetry and drama are not confined to classrooms and theatres but are present in government buildings and at political rallies. Mike Witmore addresses this in his 2015 C-Span interview, specifically discussing the question of why politicians quote Shakespeare and how they use Shakespeare’s words, sometimes without even knowing it. According to Witmore, and as we can see in the various video clips from politicians’ speeches, Shakespeare’s words add weight and heft to political messages and offer a way to connect with an audience. Witmore states that it doesn’t even matter if we can’t understand what the words mean; we can still understand the music and rhythm characteristic of the Shakespeare’s language. But how is this effective, and how does it create a connection between speaker and audience? Witmore posits that Shakespeare is an integral part of our culture, as his work is performed everywhere from the theatre to the Internet. His words have become so much a part of our culture that even if lines from plays are misquoted, we still understand the meaning. In fact, some of the most well-known Shakespeare phrases are misquotations from his plays. As we can see in looking at the dynamic performance history of Shakespeare’s plays as well as the sometimes unexpected places his words appear, Shakespeare’s work has become dispersed and ingrained in our own culture, effectively belonging to everyone.

As scholars and teachers, it is easy to argue for the advantages of democratizing Shakespeare. But in thinking about the limits of our conversation about digital scholarly editing as highlighted by Alan Galey and hearing Mike Witmore discuss misquotations of Shakespeare, I wonder what the potential disadvantages might be. While interviewing Witmore, Brian Lamb brings up the question of whether quoting Shakespeare is elitist. Witmore responds that Shakespeare does offer more down-to-earth language that is more appealing the politicians’ audiences today. It’s true that most people have at least heard of Shakespeare, but I’m not sure I’m convinced that even invoking Shakespeare does not alienate some audience members. The language can be difficult to grasp without study and repetition, which not everyone is interested in, and hearing someone else explain it might not result in increased audience sympathy. In addition, sometimes these explanations are not always correct. In the C-Span interview, there is at least one example of Shakespeare’s meaning being used in a contradictory way, and Witmore diplomatically points out that this strategy is difficult and not always successful. Not only could this potentially alienate audience members who resent Shakespeare’s academic connotations, but it could also alienate those who are more familiar with what the quotations actually mean.

I am also interested in examining the cultural value of Shakespeare’s work. Mike Witmore in particular emphasizes how important Shakespeare is in American culture. Henry Folger established the Library as a gift for the American people, and Witmore says that Shakespeare’s words are “important to American politics” (my emphasis). But the library does not dissociate Shakespeare’s work from his world, Early Modern England. Is the important concept here that Shakespeare’s work is influential in all Anglophone cultures? Does it matter that some of the most well-known phrases we use in the United States come from a British playwright? Located so close to American political buildings, the Folger Library’s presence is a reminder of the close ties between the United States and England, not just culturally, but also politically. The physical presence of the library insists English-ness in an American political space, which starts to feel a bit ironic.

Resources like the ones the Folger offers ensure that learning about and appreciating Shakespeare is open to everyone. There are obvious benefits to studying and appreciating his plays—besides the fact that the stories are enjoyable. In light of the debates about the literary canon that are informed by work in the digital humanities, I wonder if the plays’ ubiquity is limiting us in any way. Is our obsession with Shakespeare eclipsing work from the period that is also important? Are we losing anything by teaching students to equate Early Modern England with one figure? At the moment, Shakespeare is for everyone—but does he need to be?


Works Cited

Galey, Alan. “Five Ways to Improve the Conversation About Digital Scholarly Editing.” Committee on Scholarly Editions. MLA Commons, 1 August 2016. Online.

Henning, Joel. “Shakespeare in the Digital Age.” The Wall Street Journal (Online). New York: NY, Mar 2012. ProQuest.

Lyne, Raphael. “Ariel on screen, Caliban on the iPad.” The Times Literary Supplement. 17 April 2013. Online.

“Q&A with Eric Johnson.” The Collation: Research and Exploration at the Folger. 23 July 2013. Online.

“Q&A with Michael Witmore.” C-Span. Brian Lamb and Michael Witmore. 29 April 2015. Online.

The Digital and the Humanities: For What Else Shall We Apologize? – Arnaud Zimmern

The insistently apologetic tone of Goldstone and Underwood’s piece sets the stage for my questions of this week’s readings. For how long and for what institutional reasons will Digital Humanists persist in apologizing for their unorthodox approaches to literary data? Can we predict a moment or a set of conditions in which a paradigm change might finally come about, whereby a piece of quantitative analysis could be published in PMLA without major hemming-and-hawing or sincere contrition? And finally, is it really a feature (not a bug) of good, skeptical, humanistic inquiry (as Timothy Burke defines it and as Tressie Cottom demands it) that Humanists should pay as much attention to the methodological vices of the texts they produce as they do to the literary virtues of the texts they study?

Before I offer my responses to those questions – reading Goldstone and Underwood’s piece in light of Burke, Finn, and Cottom – let me issue a two-part clarification (or apology, I suppose).

First, I don’t mean to be theoretical and hand-wavy by posing questions about scholarly methodology writ large and about the wide, open, uncertain future of the humanities. I hope rather that this will prove practical and lead us to draw in class on the conversations we have already been having, like our conversation on the feasibility of a universal digital edition of Shakespeare that could be everything for everyone or on video games as scholarly editions.

Secondly, I also don’t mean to be denominational by drawing a web of metaphors that connects Goldstone and Underwood’s apologetic moves to the language of Christian atonement (contrition, vice, virtue, etc.). I’m trying to point out simply that the ethical and anthropological values that our readings unanimously present as those of secular humanistic inquiry proper are couched in a discourse of human (im)perfectibility, an imperative of forgiveness, and a suspended messianic promise of Closure/Truth that have specific historical and cultural origins. Whether those origins and bases lie in Shakespeare’s own period – as the Reformation theorized total human depravity and the Scientific Revolution theorized human perfectibility – or earlier in the medieval period, or perhaps later in the Enlightenment, matters little for us in this class. What matters is whether we wish to continue operating the academic-industrial vessel of “the Humanities” on those bases or whether we want to invest in developing alternatives. Will we continue to work with a scholarly ethos of apology, forgiveness, and incremental purification that says “Ok, Goldstone and Underwood’s analysis wasn’t perfect this time around, but that’s to be expected, we can be grateful for this much, and the next version will be better, and the next one after that….” until we either find an incomplete but satisfactory solution or get bored with the question, whichever comes first? Or will we stop and say: “Wait, we’ve been through this forgiving-and-refining cycle before – it’s the same story whether we do it with quantitative methods or qualitative methods – and we always end up blaming the final unknowability of things on our notion of human nature as fundamentally broken. Why don’t we invest our energy elsewhere?”

Personally, I’m torn on the matter: I agree with the values and aspirations of the first option, but my training as a curious humanist makes me keen to explore and pursue alternatives that are premised on the idea that there is no fixed human nature. The ultimate practical question, however, is not so much which route you or I should pick, but which route will the academic-industrial complex pick. This has been a lengthy caveat, but I did want to make quite clear what I understand to be the anthropological stakes of the quantitative or “data-logical” turn in the Humanities.

QUESTION 1: For how long and for what institutional reasons will Digital Humanists persist in excusing themselves for their unorthodox approaches to literary data?

Short response: For as long as the standard-bearers and gatekeepers of humanist knowledge (cultural institutions, taste-makers, teachers) continue to believe that humans are creatures capable of unfathomable complexity but incapable of transmitting that complexity fully through language.

Long response: Tressie Cottom gives us a way to approach this question that I think is worth summarizing. The framing claim of her paper is that the “data-logical turn” that is anxiously bubbling up in literary departments is analogous to what has already effectively overtaken sociology departments. That “contamination” (my word, not hers) illustrates how a larger academic-industrial alliance is establishing an intellectual hegemony that avoids major theoretical questions about gender, race, humanity, etc. Citing Karabel and Halsey, Cottom concludes it “would be naive not to recognize that state patronage has contributed to promoting atheoretical forms of methodological empiricism and has given less encouragement to other approaches,” like the very small scale and “slow” approaches that humanists specialize in. The discrepancy between the two approaches and modes of knowledge (or what is claimed to be two distinct modes of knowledge) is massive. For the methodological empiricists, Cottom argues, knowledge is “data” or “quanta,” infinitely mobile and shapable, transposable without deformation to any human intelligence (or artificial intelligence) — the fallibility of language does not matter because ‘quanta’ is universally transposable, transportable, and a-political. It need not be theorized. For humanists, knowledge remains invariably “capta,” i.e. something that needs to be experienced and interpreted as embedded within a cultural-linguistic-social-political context, first and foremost within a language.

When Cottom further cites Miriam Posner to say that “most of the data and data models we’ve inherited [from business applications] deal with structures of power, like gender and race, with a crudeness that would never pass muster in a peer-reviewed humanities publication,” she points us to the importance of language/discourse. We’re all familiar with the hard work that cultural anthropologists and gender theorists have pursued in the last decades trying to undo an essentialist and biological-materialist understanding of male vs. female binaries in favor of linguistic constructions of gender that spread along a spectrum. Businesses, however, as they set about investigating big data trends, build data-parsing tools that make invisible assumptions and simplifications about the political-cultural phenomena of gender, race, etc. They seldom consult Judith Butler. If sociology and the humanities adopt those tools in turn without pausing to consider the built-in empiricist-materialist assumptions, both disciplines risk perpetuating theories of gender that scholarly consensus does not widely support. Cottom’s warning against such algorithmic black-boxing meets Ed Finn’s voucher for “fistulated algorithms,” but as a black female scholar, she is rightly more suspicious of the hegemonic motivations behind the rise of DH in the academy: “I suspect that we get a quantitative textual analysis that is very popular with powerful actors precisely because it does not theorize power relations. Given our current political economy, especially in the rapidly corporatized academy, one should expect great enthusiasm for distant reading and acritical theorizing.”

So for how long and for what institutional reasons will digital humanists be required to apologize for what they’re trying to do with language? Well, for as long as we, the arbiters of cultural knowledge, continue to believe language is a political power-construct that only fallibly represents the modes and possibilities of human existence. As long as “fallible,” “flawed,” and “politically-determined” remain the invariant qualities of our definition of language, Digital Humanists will be asked to apologize for importing an empiricist methodology that thinks of its language, mathematics, as universally transposable and neutral rather than what Cottom claims it is: politically contingent and very useful for avoiding questions of prejudice and marginalization.

QUESTION 2: Can we predict a moment or a set of conditions in which a paradigm change might finally come about, whereby a piece of quantitative analysis could be published in PMLA without hemming-and-hawing or sincere contrition?

Response: When Goldstone and Underwood shrug off the aura of scientific objectivity that their numbers and graphs and percentages impart to them and insist instead that topic modeling, albeit quantitative, is a fundamentally interpretive and “humanely” limited tool, they really do two things. The first is that they appeal to the incompleteness of human knowledge that Timothy Burke calls “the one universal that we might permit ourselves to accept without apology.” In so doing they reveal that they are on a mission to endear topic modeling and its interpretive-instability, illegibility, and slowness to the healthy skeptics in English departments. The second is that they re-articulate Ed Finn’s set of conditions under which quantitative analysis might enter the common parlance of literary scholarship. The first and more obvious requirement is that numbers, percentages, and computations lose their rhetorical aura of scientific objectivity and join mere language as elements of discourse requiring interpretation and context. The second is not just the advent of “fistulated algorithms” but of the “algorithmic literacy” Ed Finn invites us to foster for ourselves.

But a further condition, unmentioned in our reading, include also a re-equilibrating, perhaps even a toppling, of the hierarchy of modes of knowledge. What I mean is this. Goldstone and Underwood are hard at work confirming their quantitative results by cross-checking their model against well-attested “analog” histories of theory and criticism. The standard-bearer of accuracy or “truth,” in their situation, is the “analog Humanities.” The “upstart crows” Goldstone and Underwood have to couch their validity in the ethos and authority of those “analog” histories. But what happens when further quantitative studies begin to couch their authority in their ability to repeat and nuance Goldstone and Underwood’s work, disregarding the old “analog” histories? Are they “wrong” or invalid forasmuch, or should we be ready to accept quantitative findings that do not anchor themselves in our usual historical narratives? Should we be ready to accept findings built unapologetically on accumulated quantitative (not necessarily un-interpretative, but quantitative) models? As long as we cannot answer yes to those last questions, we will not see a DH piece that isn’t hard beset to validate itself methodologically.

QUESTION 3: Is it really a feature (not a bug) of good, skeptical, humanistic inquiry (as Timothy Burke defines it and as Tressie Cottom demands it) that Humanists should pay as much attention to the methodological vices of the texts they produce as they do to the literary virtues of the texts they study?

I trust this question pushes everyone’s buttons and seems horribly pretentious, perhaps downright asinine, because it suggests we should be less attentive to our own assumptions and more myopic than we currently already are. If we take a leaf from Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke, we might, however, acknowledge that “for the problems facing Sociology [and thus the sociology of literature] at present, demanding more nuance typically obstructs the development of theory that is intellectually interesting, empirically generative, or practically successful” (1). Frankly, I do find myself asking in great frustration whether Goldstone and Underwood could have had more room to expose their findings and theorize some causal explanations for the history of theory if a body of peer-reviewers (or a fear of peer-reviewers) hadn’t forced them to nuance every major claim or methodological innovation they stake in the paper. This kind of nuance-policing does strike me as a major bug, not a feature, of current Humanities scholarship and it testifies, quite palpably I think, to my concluding claim. If the Digital Humanities are condemned to apologizing for their quantitative methods, it has more to do with the Humanities than with the Digital. Digital Humanists must apologize because Humanists, par excellence, apologize – we’ve found few better ways than perpetual nuancing to think ourselves relevant and rigorous, and perhaps also (dixit Arthur Schopenhauer) few better ways to avoid getting bored.

Works Cited (besides assigned readings)

Healy, Kieran. “Fuck Nuance.” forthcoming in Sociological Theory. January 2016.